Boise State should still be the star of the WAC show

boiseBoise State Spring Practice Begins: March 9 Game: April 17
The early spring buzz … The program is no longer just a cute little story; the place is bringing in the talent. It’s not a bad thing when you’re a non-BCS program with a slew of players who have to make decisions about whether or not to jump to the NFL early, and while there was a big loss in WR Jeremy Childs, getting back corner Kyle Wilson for a senior year to help secure a solid secondary. Now, the talent is meeting the on-field production. While Boise State isn’t going to be USC talent-wise, the caliber of player is far better than they were ten years ago.
The big spring question is … Can there be more of a ground game? It’s not like Boise State didn’t run the ball last year, it averaged a solid 152 yards per game, but the offense relied mostly on QB Kellen Moore and the passing game. With Ian Johnson off to the NFL, Jeremy Avery and D.J. Harper have to be the steady producers behind a good offensive line.
The most important position to watch is … Wide receiver. The passing game led the WAC in efficiency and was second in production averaging 289 yards per game. While Austin Pettis is a great-looking target with size and experience, losing a steady playmaker in Vinny Perretta, a gamebreaker in Jeremy Childs, and a veteran in Julian Hawkins, will be a problem early on.
Spring attitude… Maintain the focus on winning the WAC. With double-digit winning seasons becoming commonplace, and with yet another unbeaten regular season in 2008, it might be tempting for the team to focus too much on the Oregon game early on. While that’ll be a tone-setter for a season, win or lose, the Broncos have to keep working on being efficient, have to do all the little things right, and maintain the attitude that they need to do a little extra to get the national respect. Remember, Ohio State got the nod for the Fiesta Bowl.

Fresno State Spring Practice Begins: March 21 Game: April 26
The early spring buzz … The defense is about to be special. It was supposed to be strong last year, and then the injuries hit, and then it was a disaster. The run defense was a nightmare, but with nine starters returning, this should be the defense that dominates throughout the year. There’s depth built to go along with all the returning starters to make up for more injury problems. The D had better be fantastic for a coaching staff that needs to start winning. Pat Hill is losing assistants left and right, and he needs to show that his program can be on par with Boise State.
The big spring question is … Is Ryan Colburn the guy? Tom Brandstater didn’t turn out to be the special quarterback he was expected to become, but he was a good veteran and a solid leader. The 6-3, 220-pound Colburn will get the first look under center and there might be a short leash. There’s too much talent coming back at receiver to expect anything less than a strong passing attack.
The most important position to watch is … Defensive tackle. The run defense got ripped apart by everyone who tried to move the ball on the ground. Again, injuries were the main issue, but going into the season, the Bulldogs need major production out of their tackles, Mark Roberts and Cornell Banks. Both are juniors and both are big, active blocks.
Spring attitude… With every drill and every practice, the question has to be asked: Are we getting closer to beating Boise State? For all the bluster and all the desire to be a BCS buster, with games at Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Illinois on the schedule, it’s all about the Boise State game and the production in the WAC for a program that seems to lose focus after a big loss. The Bulldogs got ripped apart in the second half by the Broncos in a 61-10 loss, but with a loaded crew of running backs, tremendous receiving talent, and a veteran defense, there’s no excuse to not get past the league’s big dog. Or at least get closer.

Hawaii Spring Practice Begins: March 30 Game: April 25
The early spring buzz … Last year was about getting through the storm after the mass departure of talent and with the loss of head coach June Jones. This year is about showing that the program has staying power. The Jones ties are finally cut for good, with all the financial issues settled after he ducked out of his contract early, and there’s enough turnover this year to see if the positive momentum can continue. This spring, it’s about getting several new guys involved and to see who the leaders are going to be.
The big spring question is … Is there going to be a defense? Hawaii doesn’t just lose nine starters; it loses real, live NFL talent. DE David Veikune, LBs Solomon Elimimian and Adam Leonard, and FS Ryan Mouton are just a few who’ll spend time in a pro camp. DE John Fonoti will have to be the star of the line from the start, while Brashton Satele is the only returning starter in the back seven. The jobs are open.
The most important position to watch is … Besides every spot on the defense, all eyes will be on QB Greg Alexander. The big, strong JUCO transfer who took over the job over the second half of last year wasn’t Colt Brennan, but he sparked a good second half run of wins with 14 touchdown passes and five interceptions. Is this his offense now? He certainly looked the part when the team needed him the most, but now he’ll have to do even more to make up for the issues on defense. His decision making will have to be even quicker with the porous offensive line losing three key starters.
Spring attitude… Be Hawaii and do what the program does best. There isn’t enough in the bag to beat out Boise State, Nevada, and Fresno State for the WAC title, but the system is sound and the home field advantage is still among the best in college football. The team has to own its own house, something that was a problem after the shellacking coming from Notre Dame in the 2008 Hawaii Bowl, and there can’t be the misfires on the road like there was last year against a bad Utah State team.

Idaho Spring Practice Begins: March 26 Game: April 24
The early spring buzz … If you want a job, make your mark this spring. Idaho is planning on utilizing a slew of new recruits to not just build depth, but to provide an upgrade among the starters. Most of the key new players aren’t arriving until fall, so expect the overall competition to be even fiercer and even more intense than in the past under head coach Robb Akey.
The big spring question is … Will the defense be any better? The offense was hardly a prize, but the season went from a disappointment to an utter disaster because the defense didn’t do a thing. It was a young group, and there are reinforcements on the way, so with a base of nine returning starters and a few decent talents here and there, especially in the secondary, the defense has to find one thing it can do well.
The most important position to watch is … Quarterback. The team needs a spark from somewhere, and it’ll start with the quarterback. It was just assumed that Nathan Enderle was going to be the main man for the program for the next few years, but after struggling so much to get the attack moving, the job is wide open. The 6-5, 225 pound junior-to-be threw for 20 touchdowns, but he also pitched 17 interceptions. He’ll have to fight with JUCO transfer Brian Reader, a solid passer who started off at Arkansas, Justin Morales, and one of the team’s top freshman recruits, Taylor Davis.
Spring attitude… Keep working. For a program that has been so woeful for the last several years, and has done nothing in Akey’s first few seasons, being able to have a little success early on is a must. An early trip to Washington will be a decent indicator of just how much the team has advanced, and while wins are a must for the Vandals at some point, first being competitive is a must. They were blown away in nine of the 12 games in 2008.

Louisiana Tech Spring Practice Begins: March 12 Game: April 4
The early spring buzz … The needle is pointed up for a pumped up and excited program. Head coach Derek Dooley spent his first two seasons building through recruiting and working with young players, and now the payoff is expected to come. The Bulldogs are loaded with veterans, depth, and options, and after a bowl-winning 2008 season, they’re expected to be a major player in the WAC title chase. The team still might be a year away from being a conference champion, but the plan is to be in the mix.
The big spring question is … Will the offense have any more pop? The passing game was a disaster even with a good pair of receivers in Philip Beck and Phillip Livas. QB Ross Jenkins took over halfway through the season, and while he wasn’t horrible, he only threw one interceptions and wasn’t picked off in his last seven games, he wasn’t special. The accuracy wasn’t there and the consistency was a problem. He has to be better and there must be more big plays against the better teams.
The most important position to watch is … Cornerback. The offense is a bigger problem overall, but the secondary needs some serious work after losing corners Weldon Brown and Stevon Howze. The Bulldogs pass defense was 113th in the nation and allowed 25 touchdown passes. There aren’t many big-time passing teams on the slate, especially in non-conference play, but still, this is an area that needs a major improvement.
Spring attitude… Why not us? The team can go cliché and hope for everything to break the right way in the WAC title race. If the team can be that bad in the passing game and that mediocre defensively, and still win eight games and a bowl game, a little bit of tweaking could mean a major boost in the overall record. This is a program on the rise, and everyone around it is acting accordingly.

Nevada Spring Practice Begins: Feb. 20 Game: March 14
The early spring buzz … After a good season, but not a great one, the pressure is on for a program that might be seeing its window of opportunity closing. This is a good enough team to win the WAC title, but it can’t lose star QB Colin Kaepernick after losing backup and one-time starter Nick Graziano to transfer. The team remains hopeful that RB Luke Lippincott, one of the league’s best players in 2007, will get a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a major knee injury early last year. Throw in the mediocre recruiting class brought in, even if it’s full of players who can see time right away, and this might be a win-now season.
The big spring question is … Can the secondary stop anyone? The defensive backs were a nightmare as the Pack finished dead last in the nation in pass defense. To be fair, the stats are going to look lousy with Texas Tech, Missouri, and New Mexico State on the slate, but San Jose State, Idaho, UNLV, and even the woeful passing game of Louisiana Tech produced. When you allow 312 yards per game and 31 touchdowns, you need work. Three starters are back, only losing free safety Uche Anyanwu, and they have to be far, far better. They can’t even blame the pass rush; it was among the best in America and led the WAC averaging 2.85 sacks per game.
The most important position to watch is … Wide receiver. The Wolf Pack has some huge holes to fill with the loss of Marko Mitchell and Mike McCoy. With the multiple receiver sets the coaching staff likes to use, it’s vital for new prospects like Maurice Patterson and Joe Washington to step into roles with Malcolm Shepard, Art King, and Dwayne Sanders returning. Nevada might butter its bread with the running game, but with a quarterback like Kaepernick, the passing game has the potential to be every bit as effective.
Spring attitude… Be consistent. The Pack were able to push Boise State late in a loss, gave Texas Tech one of its tougher games of the year, and beat Fresno State, but gave away winnable games against Hawaii and New Mexico State. The team is built around the running game, but it needs to do everything else better to take the step up in the WAC race. That comes from doing things more consistently in the secondary to the passing game to the return game.

New Mexico State Spring Practice Begins: March 30 Game: April 28
The early spring buzz … With the Hal Mumme era over, the addition of new head man DeWayne Walker has brought in a new attitude and a new feeling that things might finally change around. The Aggies got a major-league head man in the former UCLA defensive coordinator, but he has a lot of work to do. This spring is just about finding players. There will be major changes to be made on both sides of the ball, and unlike most of the other WAC teams who will be tweaking and toning; the Aggies will be starting from scratch.
The big spring question is … How much changing needs to be done? A lot. The team will go from trying to outbomb everyone to trying to win with more defense and the running game. That means Senior Marquell Colston will have to get used to carrying more of the load behind an O line that returns three starters. The Aggies were second-to-last in running last year and got barreled over for 220 rushing yards per game. The lines have to be far, far better for Walker to field the team he wants to.
The most important position to watch is … Quarterback. For a team that was so geared toward the passing game, this will be the biggest area of concern from day one. While Chase Holbrook is off trying out for the NFL and backup J.J. McDermott has left for SMU, the Aggies are searching for someone to step up and handle the offense. Recruit Tanner Rust has good potential and will be developed for the future, but the job might go to JUCO transfer Jeff Fleming early on.
Spring attitude… Keep improving. The Aggies are light years away from being in the hunt for the WAC title, and with a major change in attitude, philosophies, and styles, it’s going to be a day-by-day battle for the new coaching staff. Right now, each spring practice will be about trying to find the right players who can do what Walker and his staff would like. It’s going to take a little while.

San Jose State Spring Practice Begins: March 9 Game: April 18
The early spring buzz … Replace the key starters might be tougher than it appears. The Spartans went 6-6 last season, and that was with major NFL prospects in corners Coye Francies and Christopher Owens along with DT Jarron Gilbert. It’s not like the Spartans are great when it comes to recruiting, it’s not easy to just fill in the gaps, but they’re giving it a shot. The offense needs WR Kevin Jurovich to return 100% after struggling last year with mono, and it gets running back Lamon Muldrow in from the JUCO ranks, but this team has been all about the defense under head coach Dick Tomey. This will be among the WAC’s most interesting spring practices to watch.
The big spring question is … Can the offense score? It’s not like there weren’t decent playmakers, WR David Richmond was special and the running backs were athletic, but the line struggled and the quarterback play was spotty. The Spartans didn’t have any running game and struggled to score, going over 17 points just five times and averaged 18.67 points per game. Tomey has built around defense, but there’s a ceiling on what the team can do without the offense doing something, anything.
The most important position to watch is … Quarterback. New quarterback coach Terry Malley needs to figure out early on who the right fit is going to be for the offense. Sean Flynn took over late in the year, but he’s gone. Myles Eden and Kyle Reed each have upside and experience, but neither one did enough to show they can move an offense on a regular basis. Chad Bozzo is another option who’ll throw his hat into the ring.
Spring attitude… Sneak up on everyone. No one will be expecting much out of the solid, but unspectacular Spartans, and they’ll really fall off the radar after starting out the year against USC and Utah. But there’s just enough talent returning on both sides of the ball to hope for the one extra win that wasn’t there last year to go bowling. Find the replacements on defense, get more pop on offense, and hope to get to another bowl game in the Tomey era.

Utah State Spring Practice Begins: March 17 Game: April 18
The early spring buzz … It might not take too much to be the WAC’s surprise team of 2009. There’s not enough talent to get by Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada to be in the title hunt, but it wouldn’t be a total shock if new head coach Gary Andersen was able to do just enough with all the returning experience to flirt with bowl eligibility. The team got better and better as last year went on, and now with most of the starters returning on offense and eight starters back on defense, there’s actually reason to be excited about Utah State football.
The big spring question is … How fast with a defensive coach like Andersen be able to change things around? The former Utah defensive coordinator got a big break with linebacker and team-leader Jake Hutton was granted another year of eligibility, but the defense isn’t going to be better unless there’s more of a pass rush. The defense didn’t do any one thing well over the last few seasons, and Andersen has to change that from day one.
The most important position to watch is … Quarterback. Diondre Borel isn’t big, but he’s a playmaker who provided a spark for the offense as the year went on. Andersen was able to bring in Kane Wilson, a big, athletic passer who’s expected to be the leader of the offense in 2011, but if Borel doesn’t shine and the offense isn’t producing, the timetable could be moved up in a hurry. Borel has to make the offense his by being a good leader and a steadier passer in every practice.
Spring attitude… Get to six. The Aggies only won nine games in the last four seasons and haven’t even been close to being competitive on a regular basis. There’s too much experience returning to not be better, and while there are sure-thing non-conference road losses at Utah, Texas A&M and BYU to get hit with, and the team isn’t good enough to beat Boise State, the goal has to be to find a way to get to six wins. More realistically, five is a better goal, but with a new coaching staff come higher expectations.